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The Benson High-School Electronics Class Rose Festival Prank

Every year, a big festival is held in Portland, Oregon – the Silicon Forest – that is not quite as famous as the Pasadena Rose Parade, though its parade was carried on network television in the 1960s, when I was in high-school. In the mid-‘60s, Benson Polytechnic High School was rated nationally as number two behind the Bronx School of Science in New York. It was built from the money of a lumber baron, Simon Benson, and had wing after wing of shops of every kind: machine shops, pattern and foundry, welding, printing, electric, carpentry, automotive, aviation (with a jet engine), and also electronics, or radio as it was referred to then. The school had a 250 W AM radio station, KBPS, run by the students. Several of us took the test for and received an FCC First Class Radiotelephone License, which as teen-age high-school students legally qualified us to run any radio or television station. The Chief Engineer (who was not a student) would let those of us with licenses carry out the cold-war Conelrad drills, with 1 kHz tones, silence, and the hackneyed message: … This is only a test.” The most interesting radio show to do as an announcer and “board” (audio mixer) operator was Concert Hall, with names of French composers waiting to be mispronounced.

It was my senior year (1968) and some of the better students were in Mr. Earl Schrader’s radio class shop. Benson was part of the Portland School District. Near the end of the school year, when the Rose Festival was held, each district school (except Benson, which had all boys) would select a girl as their school princess. The princesses would come to KBPS for interviews where the student staff would interview them. Each princess would write a coronation speech which was aired on radio. A princess was chosen as the Rose Festival Queen by the Royal Rosarians (mainly local big-shots), and the festival would officially begin.

Several of us on the KBPS staff had our own radio broadcasting interests and had built illegal radio stations in our basements at home. They were all AM stations, and though the transmitter outputs, with a 6L6 electron tube final stage, could light 100 W incandescent bulbs on the bench, the antenna lengths were woefully inadequate to transmit any farther than about 10 blocks, just far enough to test the range with an 8-transistor portable radio while playing an unattended 33 rpm long-play vinyl record.

It was a hot late-spring day in Mr. Schrader’s radio class, a class with a high concentration of university-bound honor-roll students. In the class, I was building an oscilloscope and was privileged to use the Tek 535 ‘scope kept locked in the parts room. Don Zimmerman was building a flying spot scanner, and next to him, Bill Wagner (a friend and classmate of mine also at Oregon State U.) was doing something more “theoretical” with filter circuits. The valedictorian – a perfect 4-point student – David Ngan (who went on to Stanford U. and then IBM) was studying something similar rather than building something grandiose like Zimmerman was.

Deprivation of social contact with females during adolescence had its consequences. I had devised a prank to pull on the princesses of the Rose Festival, and some of my radio-class buddies that day helped to refine it. I then typed it at home on a typewriter and ran off mimeograph copies. Another school friend of mine, Bill Schwager, was chosen as one of the Benson drivers and had access to the princesses. Benson provided the drivers to chauffer the princesses in convertibles to the important events they were scheduled to attend with the Royal Rosarians. Schwager was also a Benson band drummer. Each local high-school had a band in the Rose Parade. During lunch breaks, Schwager would teach me the drum marching sequences, pounding them out on the cafeteria tables with our hands, and also the surfing-music drum classic, “Wipeout” by the Surfaris.

I gave Schwager the handouts and he reported back on their reception by the princesses. A few of them immediately caught on to the humor, some did not understand it, and at least one thought that she was supposed to use it in preparing her speech. These flowery speeches, especially to 17-year-old male radio nerds, were regarded as overly sentimental, glaringly gushy, and packed with platitudes, pleasantries, and pollyanna. The prank was motivated by this aspect of the speeches. A scan of an original copy of the handout is shown below.

The idea behind the “catchy phrase selector” was that a princess without an erudite argot of schmalz could simply select at random a three digit number and voila! – go from left to right across the page and assemble a speech phrase. The one (or more) who did, it might be said, propelled our Benson electronics class into the Rose Festival. Mind you, I have never put on my resumé: “consultant speech writer to Rose Festival princesses” but the prank was pulled off with some aplomb and nobody was the worse for it – like the illegal radio-station transmissions from KQRM in SE Portland.

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